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Beyond This Moment (Timber Ridge Reflections Book #2)

Beyond This Moment (Timber Ridge Reflections Book #2)

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Beyond This Moment (Timber Ridge Reflections Book #2)

Bewertungen:
4/5 (48 Bewertungen)
Länge:
546 Seiten
8 Stunden
Freigegeben:
Apr 1, 2009
ISBN:
9781441203588
Format:
Buch

Beschreibung

Dismissed from the university where she served as Professor of Romantic Languages, Dr. Molly Whitcomb travels west to start over in the secluded mountain town of Timber Ridge, Colorado, where she'll be teaching children. Her train stops in Denver, and on a whim, Molly purchases a wedding band--an attempt to cover a mistake, but also a chance at a fresh start. Sheriff James McPherson was eager to hire a schoolteacher, but Dr. Molly Whitcomb isn't what he expected. His instincts about people--which rarely miss the mark--tell him she's hiding something. And when Molly's secret is revealed, her reinvented life begins to unravel. What's more, she risks losing her newfound relationship with the sheriff and her renewed faith in God.
Freigegeben:
Apr 1, 2009
ISBN:
9781441203588
Format:
Buch

Über den Autor

Tamera Alexander is a USA Today bestselling novelist whose works have been awarded and nominated for numerous industry-leading honors, including the Christy Award (two-time winner, seven-time finalist), the RITA Award (two-time winner, four-time finalist), the Carol Award, the Maggie Award, the Booksellers Best Award, and Library Journal's top distinction, among others. After seventeen years in Colorado, Tamera and her husband now reside in Nashville, Tennessee, where they live a short distance from Belmont Mansion and Belle Meade Plantation, the setting of Tamera’s two USA Today bestselling Southern series.  


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Beyond This Moment (Timber Ridge Reflections Book #2) - Tamera Alexander

Praise for From a Distance,

a TIMBER RIDGE REFLECTIONS novel

"Tamera Alexander has woven her magic again, drawing me back in time to the Colorado Territory with an intriguing plot, charming characters and a compelling love story. From a Distance has everything you expect in a traditional historical romance, but Tamera adds that something special which elevates her stories high above the usual fare."

—Relz Reviewz

The characters are charming, engaging, and very realistic . . . a great story that will have readers quickly turning pages, eager to see how it ends, yet sad to see the final page turn.

—The Romance Readers Connection

"Fans of romantic Americana won’t want to miss [From a Distance], or the next book in the TIMBER RIDGE REFLECTIONS series. . . ."

—Blog Critics

. . . fast-paced and emotionally charged, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape. 4 ½ stars.

—Romantic Times

Tamera Alexander . . . is extremely talented in how she paints the scenes so vividly you think you’re there watching the story unfold. The story as well as her characters are written with depth . . . you can feel the emotions they are experiencing.

—Once Upon a Romance

. . . with Ms. Alexander’s books I find myself slowing down to savor all the fine nuances of life and faith that she brings forth within the pages.

—CK2S Kwips and Kritiques

"If you are a historical reader, and love strong heroines, you cannot miss From a Distance."

—Christian Bookworm Reviews

Books by

Tamera Alexander

FOUNTAIN CREEK CHRONICLES

Rekindled

Revealed

Remembered

TIMBER RIDGE REFLECTIONS

From a Distance

Beyond This Moment

WOMEN OF FAITH FICTION

The Inheritance

TAMERA

ALEXANDER

TIMBER RIDGE REFLECTIONS

© 2009 by Tamera Alexander

Published by Bethany House Publishers

11400 Hampshire Avenue South

Bloomington, Minnesota 55438

www.bethanyhouse.com

Bethany House Publishers is a division of

Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

www.bakerpublishinggroup.com

ISBN 978-1-4412-0358-8

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.

Cover design by Studio Gearbox

Cover photograph by Steve Gardner, PixelWorks Studios, Inc.

To my editor, Karen Schurrer.

Your laughter is a cup of cold water to this thirsty soul,

and your gift with words, a blessing to me.

Search me, O God, and know my heart:

try me, and know my thoughts:

And see if there be any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

PSALM 139:23–24

Contents

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43

A NOTE FROM TAMERA

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

1

SULFUR FALLS, COLORADO TERRITORY

JULY 26, 1876

Molly Ellen Whitcomb stepped from the train onto the station platform in Sulfur Falls and paused, unsure of where to go and what to do next—in so many ways. The train whistle sounded, its shrill blast echoing off the station walls and bouncing down the crowded open-air corridor. The engine belched a steady stream of smoke and soot, and from somewhere behind her, the distinct clearing of a throat urged her forward. Each step was heavy, coerced, a reminder of what had brought her to this place. And of just how far she’d fallen.

Holding tight to the worn periodical tucked under her arm, she followed the flow of disembarking passengers and allowed herself to be swept along with the tide. Her arrival to Sulfur Falls was premature, four days earlier than planned. She’d wired the mayor of Timber Ridge to let him know of the change, but the clerk informed her the telegraph lines were down due to heavy rains.

Peering up into steely skies, she rubbed the ache in her lower back, doubting that status had changed.

To the west, still streaked with vestiges of winter, the lofty peaks of the Rocky Mountains reigned high above the rustic cattle town. She’d seen pictures of the mountains before, and while the gray-toned images were impressive, renderings on paper paled when standing in the shadow of their truer splendor. She almost felt as though she should curtsey out of respect—until a breeze stirred. Then she grimaced.

Her stomach reacted to the smell, and she put a hand to her nose. The stench of manure hung heavy, and trash scuttled along the station platform and edges of the street. When the steward in Denver had told her yesterday that Sulfur Falls marked the end of the line, he hadn’t been exaggerating. The train track literally came to an abrupt stop a hundred yards past the depot before looping back to join the main line.

Trunks can be fetched down line, ma’am! At the end, to your left.

With sparing breaths, Molly looked up to see a steward motioning her forward.

He eyed the periodical under her arm. Want me to dispose of that for you, ma’am?

She tightened her grip. No, I’ll keep it, tha— The gratitude died on her lips. The man had already looked away.

She moved in the direction he’d pointed—until a storefront across the street caught her eye. The wooden shingle hanging above the shop door swayed in the breeze, as though beckoning. And with the soft flutter of a moth’s wing, a possibility brushed the edge of her thoughts.

She hesitated, then stepped to one side of the platform to let others pass.

The idea forming in her mind went against every scruple she held, and against the integrity she’d sought so earnestly to pass along to her former students at Franklin College in Athens, Georgia.

Scruples. Integrity. Honesty.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, Miss Cassidy, she’d lectured a female student last fall who’d been caught cheating and tried to lie her way out of it.

Molly stared at the wooden shingle, knowing that was what she would be attempting to do if she acted on her impulse—trying to make two wrongs equal a right.

Her body flushed hot and cold as she recalled being ushered into the college president’s office early one morning only three short weeks ago, before first-hour classes convened. Her dismissal from Franklin College had been swift and humiliating, on so many levels. What she’d done was wrong. She knew that. That was never in question. Yet the punishment seemed so severe, and she’d protested—at first.

But when President Northrop conveyed his intentions should she refuse to resign her position and leave the college, she’d acquiesced. Immediately. He’d found the one weakness in her armor and had quashed her with it.

His strong suggestion that she take this particular teaching position and start over again had only been made more so by his refusal to provide a letter of recommendation for any other, including any school she’d suggested back east. And without a letter of recommendation, no reputable college or school would give her a second glance.

Taking a steadying breath, she smoothed a lace-gloved hand over her blue jacquard vest. She’d worked hard to earn her doctorate, to garner the revered title of Professor, same as her father, and to make a forward stride for women in academia. And had lost it all in a single act.

In the end, President Northrop had won—as men in authority always did. Because here she was, a world away from civilization and proper society, with everything she’d worked to achieve . . . stripped bare.

Her decision made, Molly made a beeline for the storefront.

She glanced around to see if anyone was watching her, then caught herself and choked back a bitter laugh. No one knew her in this town. Not a single solitary soul. A more remote location for her new teaching opportunity could not have been found. Not unless the Alaskan Wilderness had been an option. If it had, she was certain she would have been stepping from a train onto a vast frozen tundra about now.

Meanwhile, back at Franklin College, Professor Jeremy Fowler had been given a strong reprimand, a renewed professorship—and was sending out wedding invitations. But without her name on them. She swallowed the bitter taint on her tongue. She should have been accustomed to the unequal standards by now, but she wasn’t.

Eyes downcast, she waited for a carriage to pass, then started across the street.

Beg your pardon, ma’am, but trunks are claimed on down the way there.

She turned to tell the steward she was only running a quick errand, but it wasn’t the steward addressing her this time. Judging from the man’s rain-slicked duster and weathered wide-brimmed hat, he wasn’t employed by the railroad. And she was certain she’d never seen him before. She would have remembered if she had.

Handsome hardly began to describe him—which, at one time, might have been enough to pique her interest. Not anymore.

The man’s expression seemed open and honest, especially his smile. I noticed you getting off the train just now, and . . . well, ma’am, this part of town isn’t the friendliest. Just wanted to make sure you knew where you were going. ’Cause if you don’t, sweet lass—a twinkle lit his eyes as he slipped into a flawless Scottish brogue—you might soon be findin’ yourself somewhere you’re not wantin’ to be. Laughing softly, he gave the brim of his worn cowboy hat a tug. That advice comes free, compliments of my grandfather, Ian Fletcher McGuiggan, God rest his soul. He used to tell me that every time I stepped foot out the door.

Molly could spot a flirt as fast as she could a roach on a wall. Being a professor of Romance Languages, as they were often called, tended to attract men of that persuasion. But there was nothing flirtatious in this man’s manner. Quite the opposite. Sincerity punctuated his tone, as did familiar Southern roots.

It sounds as if your grandfather was a very wise man, sir.

He was that. Ornery as the day was long, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a kinder, gentler soul who ever walked this earth.

It took Molly a second to realize she was smiling. Then another to realize the response was genuine this time, not the brittle fabrication she’d forced in recent weeks.

Judging from this stranger’s accent, she guessed him to be from Tennessee. Or South Carolina, perhaps. Definitely educated. He’d been out of the South for a while, telling by the gentler drawl. But he certainly had his grandfather’s brogue mastered.

His expression turned wistful. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him.

And wish he were still here with you, Molly added, sensing what he hadn’t said.

Yes, ma’am. He tilted his head. I take it you had a grandfather of similar character?

A father, actually . . . God rest him. And not a day had gone by that she hadn’t wished he were still with her. Yet, at the same time, for the past few weeks she’d thanked God daily that he wasn’t. Her punishment was great enough without being made to live it through her father’s eyes.

My condolences to you, ma’am. He removed his hat, and his voice went soft. Was his passing recent?

A year ago . . . yesterday. He’d been ill, so I knew his time was close. At least I had an opportunity to say good-bye, she whispered, struck by the intimacy of their exchange. And in the train depot of a forgotten little town in the Colorado Territory, no less. Her father had said that their good-byes weren’t forever, that they were only for now. But at times they certainly felt more final than temporary.

The man stared, saying nothing, and she waited for a feeling of awkwardness to set in at the lengthening silence. But it didn’t. The oddest sense of ease flowed between them, and something told her such a situation wasn’t an unusual occurrence for him—this tendency not to fill every moment with words, despite his having approached her first.

She hadn’t expected such chivalry so far west, especially considering some of the brutish men she’d met on her two-week journey.

Well . . . He returned his hat to his head, and his coat shifted in the process, revealing a badge pinned to his vest beneath. My apologies if I’ve kept you from your business, ma’am. Good day to you, and I hope you find Sulfur Falls to your liking.

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him what he knew of Timber Ridge, but seeing the badge was enough to silence that urge. She wanted nothing to do with another man in authority, however genuine and kindhearted he seemed. Good day, sir. And thank you again for your concern.

Avoiding the muck and mire as best she could, Molly continued on across the street, resisting the nudge to glance back at the lawman. A cargo wagon barreled down the street, and the driver, his whiskered cheeks bulging, showed no sign of stopping. Giving him a hard stare, Molly paused in the middle of the street until he passed. Uncouth rabble . . .

The main thoroughfare was scarred and deeply rutted. It made for interesting walking, especially in her heeled boots.

A rather large and odorous deposit loomed in her path, and she managed a quick side step to avoid it. From the plentitude of droppings, it looked as though a herd of cattle had been driven straight down the center of Main Street. Unbelievable.

Thankful to have reached the boardwalk unscathed by man or beast, she climbed the stairs and cut a path down the uneven plank walkway, apprehension nipping her heels. Standing in front of the shop door, she pulled her father’s pocket watch from her reticule. The stage for Timber Ridge was scheduled to leave within the half hour, and she still needed to facilitate the transfer of her luggage. So little time.

Gathering her flagging nerve, she opened the door.

A gentleman stood behind the counter sorting through a drawer. Not until Molly saw him did she realize how much she wished a woman were there to assist her with her purchase. An image of her father rose in equal measure with the voice of reluctance within, and her stomach knotted tight. Well done, Dr. Whitcomb, her father had whispered as she’d paused beside him on the stage, diploma in hand. A father could not be prouder of his daughter.

That had been four years ago, and still the words, and the memory, resonated within her. Yet for an altogether different reason now. Knowing what her father’s opinion of her recent choices would have been made her question what she was about to do. But knowing what her future held if she didn’t carry through with this decision silenced the voice of hesitation.

The store clerk looked up. Good afternoon, ma’am. How may I help you today?

She glanced at the clock on the wall behind him. Best get directly to the point. I’m interested in— she took a deep breath—purchasing a ring.

Ah . . . The man’s expression brightened. You’ve come to the right place, then, madam. Brentons’ offers the finest collection of rings in all of Sulfur Falls.

Molly tried to look impressed.

He eyed her. Let me guess. . . . Your taste runs more toward . . . rubies.

She shook her head, trying to find the right words. Her request was going to be harder to say aloud than she’d thought. What I’m interested in is—

No, no! He smiled. Don’t tell me. He gave his chin a thoughtful rub. Sapphires, he said, expression hopeful.

He seemed a nice enough man and she hated to dash his hopes, but she could feel the seconds ticking. No, sir. Those stones are lovely, I’m sure. However, I have something more specific in mind. And I’m pressed for time, so if you’ll allow me to—

Diamonds! He beamed. I should have known. Come, follow me! We have a handsome assortment of them right over here.

The stagnant air inside the store grew thicker as Molly formed her next sentence. I’m not looking for a ring with a stone, sir. I’m looking for something much . . . She swallowed, hearing the jingle of his keys. Simpler.

Bending to unlock one of the cases, he stilled, then slowly straightened. Oh . . . I see. He gave a soft chuckle. Let’s go about this a different way, then, madam. Why don’t you describe the type of ring you’re looking for, and I’ll show you what we have in that style.

Her mouth felt as if it were stuffed with cotton picked fresh from the bole, and she bit the side of her tongue, just a little, in order to trigger the mouth’s natural response—a trick an elder professor had passed along moments before she walked in to teach her first college-level course. What I’m looking for is a wed— Her voice broke. She couldn’t say it. But she had to.

She couldn’t bring herself to look the salesman in the eye. Lord, please forgive me. Again. I’d like to look at your wedding bands, sir. Nothing ornate. Your most simple band will do.

He stared. I see, he whispered, doubt filtering through his expression. He glanced past her. Will your . . . husband be joining you today? To help make this purchase? He said it almost hopefully, as if wanting to give her the benefit of the doubt.

He will not, she answered softly.

The salesman gave her an appraising look before walking to a case at the back of the store. "We customarily have an assortment of silver and gold bands, but the only silver bands I have right now have stones mounted in them. So singling out the cheapest bands we have—"

Did she imagine his emphasis on that word when he looked up at her?

—you have two choices. He laid two rings before her, his manner becoming a touch brusque.

Eager to finish, she picked up the ring on the right. It was lovely. Shiny gold with delicate etchings that gave the finish a brushed look. What’s the cost of this one, please?

He told her, and she tried not to put the ring back too quickly. Three months of her new salary as a schoolteacher! She picked up the ring on the left. It had a sheen but lacked the artistry and depth of color. What about this one?

He didn’t answer immediately. That one is . . . four dollars.

Well, that definitely suited her budget better. She held it at varying angles. Why is this one so much less expensive?

Because it’s not pure gold. It’s only brass with a thin gold coating.

She inspected the ring more closely, then pulled off her gloves and slipped it on the fourth finger of her left hand. A perfect fit, as though it had been specially made, waiting for her. Running the scenario through her mind again one last time, and arriving at the same conclusion as before, she knew she had no choice. I’ll take it, thank you. She quickly counted out the bills, laid them on the counter, and turned to leave.

Not to belabor the point, ma’am. But you do realize that the ring you’ve bought is not real?

Molly paused at the door, her hand on the latch, his words lingering in the silence as their meaning took deeper hold, along with the weight of her choice. She didn’t look back as she opened the door. Yes, sir. I’m fully aware of that fact.

2

By the time Molly reached the station depot where the baggage had been unloaded, only her trunks remained. Winded, she handed her baggage tickets to the young steward standing watch.

I wondered who all this belonged to. He checked the stubs affixed to each of the trunks. All accounted for. You sure don’t travel light, do you, ma’am?

His youthful grin reminded her of the steward in Atlanta who’d said much the same thing. I’m a professor. Most of these are filled with books and curriculum. Though she doubted there would be much call for teaching Italian, French, or Spanish—her areas of linguistic study— in a backwoods mountain town. Especially when she would be teaching children, something she hadn’t done in years. And that she hadn’t enjoyed the first time around. Where might I find the stage for Timber Ridge?

He motioned to a stagecoach at the far end of the boardwalk. But he’s about to pull out, ma’am. He glanced at her luggage. I don’t think he’s got room enough for all this, anyway. We have us a hotel down there a ways. Four rooms total. If you hurry, maybe you can—

Molly pressed some coins into his hand. Would you please catch the driver of that stage before he leaves? And ask if he has room for another passenger? She had no intention of staying in Sulfur Falls for the night. And determine how many of these trunks he can accommodate.

The steward tipped his hat. Will do, Mrs. . . .

Seeing him glance at the ring on her left hand, Molly’s mind raced. The town council in Timber Ridge—the board who had hired her— already knew her last name. No need in muddying the already murky waters. "It’s Mrs. Whitcomb. Professor—" She stopped herself. No longer teaching college, she couldn’t exactly continue using that title. But she did still have her doctorate. "Dr. Molly Whitcomb, actually," she said, hoping the steward would address her in that fashion.

Will do, Mrs. Whitcomb. The young man sprinted down the boardwalk.

Minutes later, Molly found herself seated inside the stagecoach with a rather girthsome gentleman occupying the opposite bench. Grateful to be spared the experience of spending a night in Sulfur Falls, she situated her satchel—the single piece of luggage the driver, a Mr. Lewis, had said he could accommodate—on the seat beside her. The rest of her belongings would be shipped by wagon, as the steward had suggested, to arrive in a day or two. She hoped. But at least she had some toiletries, and the periodical she’d purchased at the train station in Atlanta.

She opened the dog-eared magazine to the marked page. Having read the article countless times, she practically knew it by heart and hoped for the chance to meet the woman who had— Catching a whiff of something, she stole a glance at the man across from her. His mouth hung open, and his eyes were half closed. She guessed him to be asleep. Either that or sleeping one off, as she’d heard said.

I’m tellin’you, I’m not takin’on any more luggage! I’m loaded as heavy as I can manage for this trip.

Hearing the driver’s voice, Molly peered out the window, wanting to make sure he wasn’t referring to her trunks. She spotted Mr. Lewis—and a gentleman speaking to him.

The gentleman, well dressed in a suit and top hat, faced Mr. Lewis, his feet firmly planted. "You’re a good man, Mr. Lewis, and a wise one.

I appreciate your attention to detail. But you know as well as I that two more trunks won’t make that much difference. Not with your fine animals in the harness."

I’m tellin’you, I can’t do it! The roads are soft with recent rains, and I won’t risk gettin’ bogged down again on the side of a cliff. Took me half a day to dig out last time.

Bogged down again? On the side of a cliff! Molly’s interest in the conversation was piqued.

Again, Mr. Lewis, I trust your instincts and experience beyond measure. However, I’m none too eager to part with the contents of these trunks and am therefore willing—the man reached inside his suit—to pay an additional fee for my passage on your stage this afternoon.

I told you, Tolliver, I’m not—

Lewis fell silent, and Molly strained to see what the man held out to him. Whatever it is, Mr. Lewis, don’t take it. Don’t let yourself be— Her eyes went wide at the stack of bills, and her jaw slipped open as she counted along with the driver. For that amount of money, she would’ve dragged the trunks up the mountain herself!

Lewis eyed the taller man as he fingered the bills. Then he stuffed them into his vest pocket. If my rig gets stuck, Tolliver, you’ll be the first to get out and start diggin’!

Tolliver bowed. And I’ll do it gladly. Thank you, Mr. Lewis. He turned and Molly averted her gaze, but not before he’d caught her staring.

He opened the door, briefly assessed the seating arrangement, and looked in her direction. Dear lady, would you be so kind?

Already retrieving her satchel, Molly scooted to the far side of the cushioned bench. He climbed in and claimed the space beside her, placing the fine leather case in his grip on the floor at his feet. He took up well more than half the space, though not without excuse. He was a broadshouldered man and muscular.

Molly shot a glance at their traveling partner seated opposite them, only to find his eyes still closed and his chin slumped forward on his chest. His soft snores grew steadily louder.

Brandon Tolliver, madam.

As was customary, she offered her hand. Dr. Molly Whitcomb.

He brushed a kiss across her fingertips, his expression registering surprise. And—if she wasn’t mistaken—a spark of recognition, though that was impossible.

Doctor? He held her hand longer than decorum allowed. I’m duly impressed.

His tone, however, said quite the opposite, as did his smirk, and Molly returned her hand to her lap, feeling pretentious now for introducing herself that way. But the title was hard earned, and people thought nothing of it when a male colleague introduced himself in that manner. If that’s truly the case, Mr. Tolliver, then I fear your respect is too easily won. She smiled to soften the barb.

He pressed closer on the seat. Respect? I never said anything about respect, my dear woman. But admiration, on the other hand—his gaze took in more than her face, and more than a gentleman’s should—is another issue entirely. Has anyone ever told you, you’re much too pretty to be a schoolteacher?

Molly did a pitiful job of masking her surprise. How did you know—

He laughed. "There was an article about you in the newspaper, Dr.

Whitcomb. Woman professor comes west to teach children," he said, punctuating each word with a gesture and with counterfeit enthusiasm.

I believe that’s how the headline read. But never did I dream that a college professor could be so—

He paused, and Molly trailed his focus to her left hand resting on the satchel in her lap.

He slowly straightened. "Mrs. Doctor Molly Whitcomb? His eyes narrowed. A married woman who’s maintained her independence . . . that’s something one doesn’t see very often. And something that wasn’t included in that newspaper article. He huffed a laugh. The town council must be more open-minded than I thought."

You got enough room in there, Mrs. Whitcomb?

Welcoming the interruption in conversation, Molly directed her attention to Mr. Lewis, who stood peering in the window. Yes, sir. I’m fine, thank you.

All righty, then, we’ll get under way. The stage leaned to one side as Mr. Lewis climbed to the driver’s perch, and Molly held on as the coach jerked into motion.

The clomp of horse hooves and the squeak of the stage—along with cavernous snores from their traveling partner—drowned out any chance of normal conversation. She was careful not to look in Brandon Tolliver’s direction again, having no desire to continue their dialogue.

What he’d said had caught her attention, though—about the newspaper article not including that she was married, and about the town council being more open-minded than he’d thought. Perhaps her solution wasn’t the best idea after all. But what could she do now? Any chance of turning back, either literally or figuratively, was gone.

She felt Tolliver looking at her, but he didn’t pursue conversation.

Grateful for the time to sort her thoughts, Molly scanned the article in the magazine, familiar now with its contents, and compared the author’s descriptions of these mountains to the scenery outside her window. Both were breathtaking. Elizabeth Westbrook Ranslett, the author of the article and—according to the note at the end—the editor of the Timber Ridge Reporter, painted word pictures with such authenticity and beauty that Molly felt as if she were seeing the surrounding scenery for the second time, instead of her first.

Enjoying the cool breeze on her face, she slipped the magazine into her satchel and settled back into the seat.

Evergreen trees of all shapes and sizes populated the mountainside, and she took a deep breath, relishing the pungent, incongruous scent of Christmas in summer. The higher the stage climbed, the cooler the temperature grew, and the more vibrant the air. The waning afternoon sun seemed to race toward the western peaks, its light filtering through dingy gray storm clouds and bathing the vista in a silvery veil.

As she’d ridden the train west and watched these mountains rise from the dusty floor of the plains, their magnificence had been undeniable. Their rugged beauty had beckoned, but it also held warning. And she experienced that warning again as her gaze skimmed over the edge of the cliff, plunged downward into the chasm, and then rose with determination to the jagged peaks still ribboned with snow.

Stark and pristine in its beauty, the rugged land she passed through was every bit as wild and untamed—and awe-inspiring—as the article in the periodical professed it to be.

She’d heard people speak of the western territories before but had never paid much attention, until recently. They said life out west was different, that things were possible here that weren’t back east. She prayed that was true.

Facing the back of the coach, she wished again that the opposite bench had been available when she’d boarded. She never traveled well when facing backward, even under ordinary circumstances, and was feeling more than a touch queasy with all the bouncing around. Not to mention she feared sliding from her seat at any moment.

With concern, she watched as the road narrowed and finally thinned to a few scant feet of earth jutting from the side of the mountain. Perhaps she should have inquired how long Mr. Lewis had been driving the stage.

Odd what trust she’d placed in a man she didn’t even know.

Mindful of the sleeping passenger across from her, Molly discreetly braced her feet against the opposite cushioned bench and held tight to the satchel in her lap.

The bruised sky soon delivered on its threat and a light rain began to fall.

Within minutes, it became a downpour, and she and Mr. Tolliver worked quickly to lower the curtains on the coach windows. Once tied down, the heavy fabric kept out most of the rain, as well as the light. The air quickly grew musty and thick in the enclosed space. The stage jostled and jolted beneath them, and Molly gripped the door, trying to exercise enough discipline not to peek through the crack in the curtains on her side to where the edge of the road abruptly ended.

Thunder rumbled over the mountains, and she held her breath each time until the noise passed. Its reverberation echoed inside her chest.

Tolliver leaned close. Don’t be alarmed, ma’am, he said, half yelling.

We’re used to this. Storms pass quickly up here. And Lewis has been driving these mountain roads all his life.

Wishing she were comforted, Molly raised her voice to be heard over the wind and rain. Thank you . . . Mr. Tolliver. Her fingers ached from holding so tightly to the door and her satchel, and she clenched her jaw to keep her teeth from rattling.

A loud cough contributed to the thunder overhead, followed by a gravelly snore. She stared across from her, disbelieving. How could their traveling partner sleep through this!

Oh, God, why did I agree to come here? Why hadn’t she stayed in Georgia? She still had the family home her father had left to her. She could have found another job doing something—anything—and tried to make a new life there. But as soon as those thoughts came, so did their impossibility. She would never have been able to start over there. Not with Jeremy getting married and her watching it all unfold while sidestepping inquiries about her sudden dismissal from Franklin College.

The stage hit a bump and Molly flew off the seat.

Screaming, she grappled for a hold and came down hard on the bench. The coach shuddered as though sharing her terror, and Tolliver swore beside her.

A high-pitched scream split the air, only this time it didn’t come from her.

Another scream followed, and another. Primal, elongated squeals that sent chills down her spine. Realization knifed through her. It was the horses! Something was happening to the horses— Without warning, the coach shimmied to one side and slid to a stop.

Relieved, cautious, Molly let out a held breath as the gentleman across from her sat upright. He belched, and the stench of stale bourbon soured the closed compartment. With surprising quickness, he stood, and his head met the ceiling with a loud thwack. Swaying, he sank back down, his head lolling. Molly found herself praying he wouldn’t be sick.

The coach began moving again. But . . . it wasn’t its usual forward motion. Gone was the bumping and bouncing. Maybe the road had smoothed out. Or perhaps— Then she felt it, and her insides melted. Something was terribly wrong. They were moving, but downhill! Sliding . . .

Tolliver’s arm came around behind her, and she thought he meant to shield her, but he braced himself instead. She did likewise and watched the large man across from them slump to one side.

Thunder roiled overhead, and everything took on a slower motion.

Mr. Lewis yelled something from the driver’s seat. To them? To the horses? Whatever he shouted was lost in the confusion and noise. A loud crack—and the world spun.

Molly slammed against the side of the coach and pain exploded in her shoulder. Tolliver landed against her with a grunt. He shifted and groaned beside her. She waited for him to move, but he didn’t. Another hard jolt whipped them backward, and her head smacked the wood paneling behind the seat. Pain fanned out across the back of her head as something landed on top of her, knocking the air from her lungs, pinning her down.

She tried to move but couldn’t.

Arching her back, she fought to get a decent breath as lights danced before her eyes. The rancid smell of soured bourbon told her what— or who—was on top of her. She tried to push him off, but it was no use.

Then everything went strangely still. And silent.

She glanced beside her. Mr. Tolliver? she said, nudging him. Mr. Tolliver! His head slipped forward, and she fought a rising tide of panic. Blood marred the right side of his face. Tears rising in her throat, she shook the man on top of her. Sir? She shook him harder. Sir!

He didn’t respond. Didn’t move. But he shared every putrid exhale.

The walls closed in around her. She needed air! She had to have air!

Blindly groping along the door panel, she finally located the latch.

And pulled.

Nothing.

Teeth gritted, she tried again, harder this time, putting her weight against it, but the latch wouldn’t budge. Her fingers brushed against one of the leather ties that held the curtain in place, and frantic, she worked at it until the loop slipped free. Feeling a trickle of relief, she pushed the curtain aside and took in a deep breath—that never reached her lungs.

The ravine opened below like a hungry mouth gaping wide.

Molly tried to scream, but the sound lodged like a fist at the base of her throat. For a brief, agonizing instant, she imagined what it was going to feel like as she plummeted downward and her body hit the jagged rocks far below.

With renewed motivation, she fought to move beneath the weight pinning her down—and felt the stagecoach shift. A chill crept through her. She began to tremble. Her jaw shook. And every thought fled except one.

She was going to die on the side of this mountain—she and her unborn child—and she wasn’t ready yet.

3

Mindful of how the road narrowed along this stretch, James McPherson nudged his horse closer to the mountain, his earlier run-in with Brandon Tolliver in Sulfur Falls still wearing on him. He pulled his Stetson lower over his eyes, a shield from the drizzle. Judging from the clearing in the clouds overhead, it looked like the worst of the storm had moved past. Unusual amount of rain for this time of year.

He’d tried to get Tolliver to see reason, but the man could be downright obstinate when he wanted to be. James smiled. Not that he’d ever been accused of being obstinate. As sheriff of Timber Ridge, he was all for progress and growth, but the safety of the people was at the center of every decision he made. Both for the folks who’d lived in Timber Ridge since the town was founded, and for newcomers who seemed to be arriving in droves every day.

Construction of Tolliver’s Colorado Hot Springs Resort was providing much-needed jobs, especially since the Shady Susan silver mine had all but stopped producing. Miners were looking for work until a new mine struck it big, and Tolliver’s venture was giving the town’s economy a boost. James shifted in the saddle. But the construction of the new resort was also causing all sorts of problems between locals and immigrants. Every day, tensions escalated. Locals accused foreigners of taking jobs they considered rightfully belonged to them, while— James’s thoughts fell away as he rounded the corner. He struggled to make sense of the scene before him.

At first he thought the rain and afternoon shadows were playing tricks on him. But when he heard a woman scream, he knew what he was seeing was real. He jumped from his horse and grabbed the coiled rope looped around the saddle horn.

The switchback trail was saturated from the rains, and twice he slipped as he clambered uphill. He recognized the coach as belonging to Lewis, but the scene was surreal. The stage lay on its side, hugging the rocky edge of the cliff, partially suspended over the ravine. The team of horses—frenzied and wild-eyed—was still harnessed, and each time the animals strained forward in the mud and then let up, the stage edged closer to the drop-off, threatening to take the animals with it.

James slogged through the mud and gripped the harness of the lead mare. He whispered low, trying to hold her steady.

Lewis! he called, searching for any sign of his friend. He’d just seen Lewis in Sulfur Falls not an hour ago, and the man had only one passenger then—Charlie Daggett, a local from Timber Ridge. But judging from the woman’s scream, Lewis had apparently picked up a second.

Peering down, James saw that the wooden tongue securing the harnesses to the stage was split down the middle. Meaning it wouldn’t hold much longer. Worse, it also meant there was no way to use the horses to pull the coach free of danger.

Mindful of the slippery slope, he moved closer to the underside of the carriage, eyeing the distance from the stage to a stand of aspen anchored between boulders across the road. He heard something and stilled. It sounded like a woman crying.

He took a step closer. Hello! Are you all right in there?

The crying quieted. Please . . . Another soft sob. C-can you h-help us?

Moved by the pleading quality in her voice, James wondered if she had any idea how dire the situation was. "That’s exactly what I aim to do, ma’am. The most important thing for now is to stay absolutely still.

Do you hear me? Don’t move and don’t try to climb out."

I won’t. She sniffed. I c-can’t move.

Quickly sizing up his options, and considering how badly she might be hurt, he looped one end of the rope through a brace on the backside of the carriage body and tied it tight. I’m working to get the stage secured, then I’m going to get you both out of there, all right?

Silence.

All right. B-but . . . there are three of us.

Three? James winced, already having estimated the time and care it would take to get Charlie Daggett out. He was no small man. But three people? Are the other two men?

Yes.

He wondered why the men weren’t speaking. Are they hurt? Not waiting for her to answer, he backed his way across the muddy path, mindful of his footing, to loop the other end of the rope around a clump of aspen. It wouldn’t hold the weight of the stage if gravity took over, but it would buy him some time.

Yes . . . and no, she finally said. "One man has a gash on his head. He was knocked out when the stage flipped. The other man . . . he doesn’t seem to be hurt. But he’s passed out too. From

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  • (4/5)
    This is book 2 in the Timber Ridge Reflections series and I enjoyed it even more than I did book 1. It is a story of learning the hard way that the choices we make can and will effect more than just ourselves. A story of secrets, of prejudices, of love and of forgiveness. Dr. Molly Whitcomb, a professor at college, finds herself being dismissed from her school because of a bad choice and finding herself taking a position as a teacher in the Colorado Territory at Timber Ridge. She is with child and no husband, so she tries to hide her disgrace by putting a ring on her finger and saying her husband has died. Sheriff James McPherson has a feeling things are not quite as they seem when she first gets to town, but he can't figure out what Molly Whitcomb is hiding. He also can't stop his growing feelings for her. The problem is, when he finds out the truth, what will that do to the love that is building between both of them?Tamera Alexander does a great job of making the characters seem real and helping you understanding the thoughts and standards of that time for a woman like Dr. Molly Whitcomb. It is a story well worth reading. You can easily read this as a stand alone, but reading book one first will help you understand the characters that much more.
  • (5/5)
    This is the second book in the Timber Ridge Reflection series and as I read the first one, the story just flows. Molly Whitcomb stepped from the train and pause to look around, she waited to get her luggage as she had something she had to do before she left on the stage for the last part of her journey to Timber Ridge Colorado where she was to begin her job as the new teacher. She had worked to get her dictatorial degree in languages, and was working at Franklin College as a professor when beyond her control after her father died she was let go and was sent to Timber Ridge to set up a new school where there never had been one before.Molly had no idea what would happen to the stage as she was riding over the mountain passes.When she finally got to Timber Ridge and started teaching, she had a really hard time with the city council as everything she did was under a microscope. She had secrets from her past and was living a lie, as she let everyone believe that she was a widow. She meet the young handsome sheriff James McPherson and they both had a past that they were not telling. Molly had a time with the council and her students, but she found a way to teach that had the entire country coming to see. The new hotel was being built that was right at the surfer springs and they were using Italian immigrants to do the work, but they were not being paid much and she wanted one of the little boys to come to her school but he was not allowed the same as the black little son of Josiah Birch, he was introduced in the first book. She was teaching them on her own time but the council didn't like that either. She could speak three languages and was a big help in translating the Italian from the workers and she helped them. Will Molly ever do anything to please the council? Will she be able to teach the children or will she be replaced? What is this secret she is hiding?This book was sent free from Baker Publishing Group for me to post my own review. I give this book a 5.
  • (5/5)
    Reading the back cover blurb for the book a reader knows that the main character Molly Whitcomb has a secret that is reputation-ruin worthy. After reading the first chapter a reader knows what that secret is. I am quite certain there will be some readers who will give up right there on this book, but oh how I wish you would not. This is not a story about making mistakes and moving on with life. This is a story about being a fallible human and living with it. There are times in life where your insides are screaming to just let this moment be gone, or just to be "beyond the moment". Yet, our heavenly Father knows what is best for us. This novel is a sequel, but is quite a stand alone. It is powerful and edgy and really pushes the limits of your conscience and what-if scenarios. I highly recommend this read as one to deepen your heart and convictions and see the inside of some people you might have just ignored in different circumstances. Think hard about casting those stones. Read this book and grow and learn from the experience.
  • (5/5)
    Love this author. I love the stories and characters.